On Innovation at Staid Firms

A phrase in the article ‘The Next Russian Revolution’ By Chrystia Freeland in The Atlantic about Skolkovo, a planned ‘silicon valley’ of sorts in Russia is worth rehashing : “…..After all, one of the most important—and, if you happen to be a democrat, inspiring—lessons of the past two millennia of human history is that open societies are better at innovation than closed ones.”

This is a NOT a tedious essay about Skolkovo, Russia or democracy. That phrase helped clarify why innovation is such a elusive goal for most corporations. why there is 1 Apple for every 100+ phone making enterprises.

A corporation is at best a benign fascist organization in most places on the planet. The CEO its anointed head. Some heads execute their role well (Welch at GE, Robert Goizueta at Coca Cola) and  some don’t (Skilling at Enron, Araskog at ITT). In Asian countries, even more so, what with its regimented ‘Always obey The Leader’ mentality drilled right from the workers schooling phase. Think typical classes in Singapore, Tokyo and Delhi. You don’t really ‘vote’ for the CEO. He is thrust upon you, the cog. Like honesty and the local politician, innovation and hierarchy rarely mix well.

This is NOT the introduction to an Anarchist manifesto to overthrow this tyrannical system.

Rather, that line in the article, hints at why we find it so difficult to innovate out of a morass of low growth and single digit margins in most enterprises.

If you decide to get a dog to your workplace what would happen at your company ? What if you tried to wear sandals, tee and a cargo pant to work ? At the enterprise where I toil I know it’s going to be minutes before security hauls my ass to HR. And my company is actually one of the better places here in my city (NCR). Yet far too many companies like mine desperately want to see ‘Innovation’ and have launched hundreds of failed initiatives to encourage it. That line in the above article hints why they fail. An open enterprise where tolerance for the non-criminal but ‘weird’ is allowed is far better positioned to reap the rewards of innovation than a closed door ‘265 pages HR rulebook’ run enterprise. If your workplace has a strict ‘dress code’ that is enforced by the under-employed slugs in HR, I can bet it is not at the cutting edge of innovation in it’s industry.

Po Bronson, one of the most eloquent chroniclers of Silicon Valley’s great burst of creativity in the 1990s, titled his classic 1999 book The Nudist on the Late Shift. The naked programmer of his title was a guy who happened to prefer working without any clothes on, and his insistence on exercising that harmless personal choice—on the late shift, when few others were around—struck Bronson as characteristic of the Valley’s famously libertarian and individualistic ethos.

Maybe Paine’s Rights of Man ought to be next on the recommended reading list for the innovation minded CXO.

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